Last year as a precursor to its autumn Teen Read promotion the Book Marketing Council (BMC) commissioned some research into what was known about young people’s reading habits.
Michael Pountney who took on the job gives us a flavour of what he discovered.
‘You’re trying to find out about what teenagers read? Well, everyone knows they don’t read at all, or if they do it’s precious little, and certainly a lot less than we used to when we were that age.’
I always treat ‘everyone knows’ claims with a lot of suspicion; what they usually mean is ‘my unsubstantiated prejudice tells me that…’. In this case, however, there is at least a degree of substance to what people were saying to me. In the publishing and bookselling business, there are lots of figures that seem to indicate a severe falling off in the numbers of books bought for or by children in the 11-15 age group. This leads to the gloomy conclusion that unless something is done about it, the outlook for the adult market in ten or fifteen years is bleak. The hypothesis is that if young people don’t get the habit of reading for pleasure when they are at school, they’ll never have it as adults. It was that view that led to the Teen Read idea, and to the decision to do some research into the market. There was no time or money to do any primary research, to go out and ask samples of young people for their views. My report is based on information already available from different sources. There are two levels to the research. The first tries to see how books and reading rate in the overall teenage world: how important books are as things to spend money on, and how important reading is as a thing to spend time on. The second looks at what is known about the opinions teenagers have of the books they do read; what they prefer, what they would like to see more of, what they think is missing altogether.
At the first level I soon discovered that full-scale market research into the under-18 market is much sparser than for all subsequent age-groups. This wasn’t a surprise. The size of the market is so much smaller than the adult market that the cost of the research is much less easy to justify. But there was some, and what there was was very detailed. A research company called Carrick James dominates the field and if you look at what they research it is immediately clear that the people who buy their results are the people who make the products for which children and young people form the whole, or at least a major part of the market. They look at sweets and ‘snacks’, comics and magazines, records, toys, clothes, cosmetics, and rate them very precisely according to the value of each market. They look at TV and video, radio, newspaper, magazine and comic reading, cinema, sport, ‘going-out’, and rate each according to their importance as things to spend time on.
But there is nothing about books and book reading, or nothing precise. The ‘other’ things children and young people spend their time and money on are bundled up into unhelpful groups. This is because they are too small to look at individually, or because no-one has shown any interest in buying the detailed research. Books suffer on both counts. They are bundled up with greetings cards, ‘stickers’ and stationery. As a measure, it’s interesting, salutary perhaps, to see that the size of (i.e. money spent on) this whole bundle is roughly equivalent to that of one of about ten sub-divisions of the sweet market – the one for `gum’.
So what is the general picture? From 11 onwards (the move to secondary education does seem to be a watershed) consumers (neither manufacturers nor researchers have come up with a label for the non child / not yet teenager) are increasingly the deciding influence in decisions about what is spent on them, from whatever source the money comes. Fashion, records, comics and magazines are acutely aware of a market resolutely establishing its separate (not-a-child) identity and driven by forces within itself. There is little precise research analysing the way teenagers use their time and certainly none specifically on time spent reading books. In general it seems that time is spent on television, video, sport, discos, music, going around with friends … and homework. Reading for pleasure – perhaps not surprisingly – has strong competition and takes something of a back seat.
One immediate thing that strikes you in the research is how inadequate it is to talk about children and young people as a homogeneous group, when you look at their preferences for spending both their money and their time. The way their tastes change as they grow up is the most obvious factor that invalidates overall ‘Children’s market’ opinions. It’s not one market; it’s more like seven, each of about two years. And there are differences between socio-economic groups, too, and between geographical areas, between sexes and between types of education, all of them significant.
As far as disposable income is concerned the whole age-range seems to have pretty well kept pace with inflation. 13- and 14-year-olds have approximately half as much again in disposable income per annum as 11- and 12-year-olds. Between 15 and 16 however there is an almost 300% increase – a time when more adult purchases (and responsibilities) figure and when according to the figures this age-group is apparently permanently insolvent, overspending by 10%! The averages though, as ever, are misleading especially as there is clearly a big difference between teenagers still in education and those not. Little or no information on these various dimensions exists specifically for books. Broadly speaking the 13- and 14-year-old group pays the least attention to spending in the ‘book group’ of products. 54% of them spend nothing in this area. Magazines in particular peak at this age and are significant as opinion formers and trend setters.
When I went on to the second level of the research, the part concerned with what the children who do read think about what they read, I discovered that although there are clear age distinctions between types of books produced for the 11+ market, no-one knows much about the way each age-group’s opinions of books and reading are changing. If there is a marked diminution in the time spent on reading for pleasure the important thing to know – and not just to have opinions about – is whether this diminution is getting bigger; and if so why, what is it that is ‘winning’ against books?
In this context, the Sweet Dreams phenomenon is interesting. Sweet Dreams started in America. The US publisher pressed their UK subsidiary – Corgi – to publish them here. Corgi didn’t think there would be a market, and to prove their point they did some scale market research. The researchers reported ‘It is rare in market research that we come across a manifest demand for a new product … Respondents said openly, emphatically and without hesitation that they were looking for novels to read, but couldn’t find what they wanted’. Everyone knows the outcome – but isn’t it at least likely that there are other hidden interests which are not being met by the books that are available?
There are a lot of pieces of research, mostly done by Public Libraries and LEAs, which do focus on particular areas of book provision. The difficulty about them is that, while they usually achieve their particular objects, their samples are too small for general conclusions to be drawn from them, and their structures are so different that they can’t be aggregated. They give hints, but not directions.
One of the strongest of these hints is that there is inadequate provision of books for children for whom English is not the mother tongue or not the mother culture; another is that the editorial line ‘I publish “quality” books, the sort of books that children ought to read,’ still has far too much currency and that what is published is still far too much influenced by middle-class values and didactic attitudes. But these are only hints, not directions.
In all, Books in the Teenage World came up with very little hard information. But it has a value nevertheless. It has shown how much other industries think it necessary to know about their markets if they are to keep their ‘share’ of them in the face of competition from other claims on young people’s time and money, and it has at least hinted that in spite of the huge number of books being published, there are still areas that are inadequately covered or not covered at all. The report concluded that books in the teenage world – indeed in the whole of the children’s world – very much need formal and continuous market research. It also concluded that it would be very valuable if all small-scale research projects could be constructed within an overall framework that would make one properly comparable with another, and all of them capable of aggregation without loss of validity.
The immediate outcome has been a number of offers from within the book trade to help fund some new research, so perhaps by next year that bundle of books and stationery and the rest will have been un-packed at least to the extent of getting books and reading into packets of their own.
Books in the Teenage World (0 85386 119 6, £10.00) is available from BMC, 19 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3HJ (01-580 6321). Cheques should be payable to the Publishers Association.